Friday, February 15, 2013

Ronan McMahon’s "Real Estate Trend Alert" is Put to the Test in Costa Rica

I’ve been a reader of International Living for a few years now (I only subscribed for one year, but since they have my credit card number, they keep on renewing without my permission), and IL is just one spoke in a real estate advertising and publishing empire that includes such affiliates as Pathfinder International and Real Estate Trend Alert. Many of the IL articles are written by or about ecstatically happy expatriates who escaped dreary lives in RochesterWest Virginia or Minneapolis (December 2012 issue) to find low-cost, gringo-loving paradises without mosquitoes, muggers or muddy roads. A typical testimonial might sound like this: "Every morning we eat fresh tropical fruits on our patio while Juan Valdez roasts our coffee.  Unicorns come to us from out of the jungle -- and we can actually pet them!"

Nothing bad ever happens in Latin America in International Living. Crime? Never heard of it. Try reading expat forums to learn the downsides of living in Latin America.

A subscription to IL gets one signed up for complimentary Pathfinder Alerts, an on-line newsletter featuring foreign real estate deals. A recent e-mail from publisher Margaret Summerfield to a “select group of readers” presented a “For Your Eyes Only” audiovisual presentation from “an international businessman” with a “shockingly powerful wealth-building secret” which we, the "select readers" on their spam list, are urged to keep secret. "Secrets of the wealthy" is getting to be one of the most tired lines of the investment scam business, and this script has all the other standard vernacular of phony get-rich-quick schemes, including the requisite “what would you do with that kind of extra money!” and “You need to be serious about making money – fast!” -- except for the slight Irish accent.

The "international businessman" turns out to be Ronan McMahon, her business partner, promoting a premium IL product, Real Estate Trend Alert, featuring his alleged prowess in spotting amazing real estate deals and sharing “insider information” from his “millionaire friends”, a service normally priced at $999 per year, but temporarily reduced to $499 per year if one “acts now”. The price can even be broken down into quarterly payments of $124.75, and there is a 30-day money-back guarantee if not delighted with his service. I found myself intrigued when he said that his most recent finds are in Costa Rica, a country where I also appraise real estate..

This presentation has many of the typical features of the Sleazy Investment Promoter's Playbook, such as:

  1. Playing on our dreams.  What would you do with all that extra money?” is a standard investment promoter’s psychological ploy that takes the listener out of the realm of reason and prudence and into the realm of dreams.  
  2. Exaggerated claims of investment expertise.  Mr. McMahon’s own resume shows that he was not employed in the real estate industry prior to being hired as Pathfinder/International Living’s “real estate expert’. If he is indeed a successful real estate investor, he should give us evidence.  As for RETA's claims of profits made my its members, they use the dishonest technique of calculating profit by taking the lowest original purchase price in the development and then comparing it to the highest current listing price in the development, misleading readers into thinking that Ronan McMahon provided 100+% profits for his readers. Aren't there any resales to calculate actual profit?
  3. Claims of “insider secrets” and “millionaire friends” and heavy use of investment promoter buzzwords, such as “confidential” and “insider”. This "fake exclusivity" is how many so-called real estate and advice gurus sell their expensive seminars and publications.  Truly successful investors have no need to sell seminars and publications. Most of today’s real estate and investment gurus, even Rich Dad himself, make their money from marketing books and seminars and not from investment.
  4. Calling us “select”.  This is also a "fake exclusivity" trick. Twenty years ago I often received mass-mailed letters addressed to “Select Area Single” from Great Expectations, an overpriced and scammy dating service.  They didn’t even know my name or marital status.  Likewise, the only thing International Living/Pathfinder knows about me is that I was a sucker who gave them my credit card number.  For that I should be labeled "naïve" rather than "select", unless I've been selected for being stupid.
  5. Special discounts if you “act now”, thus engendering a sense of urgency.

Despite suspecting a hoax, it is to protect and inform all of you, my “select readers”, that I acted as a guinea pig in subscribing to his Real Estate Trend Alert service, authorizing a payment of $124.75 on my credit card and relying on a 30-day money-back guarantee. Little did I know that the scam had already begun.

Although I chose the $124.75 (3-month) option, their server automatically upgraded my request to the full $499 subscription. An hour later, my credit card company contacted me about this mysterious $499 charge. I contacted IL and asked for this charge to be corrected.  Four days later I requested a full refund, but only received a credit for $124.75, leaving me with a balance of $374.25.  I have since asked for and received a full refund on March 7, three weeks later, after several dealings with their flaky customer service department (with excuses such as "our computer is programmed to give only one refund, and we can't get it to refund the remainder"). Remember that Pathfinder is an Irish company and might not play by (or even know) the same rules as American companies.
Two days after ordering, I started receiving the daily Real Estate Trend Alerts, which turned out to be recycled (and free) Pathfinder Alerts and International Living classified ads. Nothing secret or "insider" about these, thus contradicting his claim that his selections “truly are insider investments, not available to the public.” Some of these properties are getting shopworn after being repeatedly advertised in these publications for two years or more. And if Mr. McMahon is such a real estate investment genius, why are most of his recommendations his own advertisers? When McMahon uses the word "insider", it really means "advertiser".

Case in point is the last “Alert” I received the morning before I called to cancel my subscription. The title was “Last 2 Lots at this Low Price (Great Views)”. The project was “The Preserve at Lake Arenal”, a Costa Rican project I’m already familiar with as the result of a free Pathfinder Alert. This morning’s alert told of two remaining half-acre lots available to RETA subscribers at the low price of $25,000 each, with 10% cash down and interest-free monthly payments of $187.50 per month for 10 years. McMahon tells us “Arenal is facing an inventory crunch. Land prices have risen,” when the opposite is happening. It always amuses me when I'm told that Costa Rica is running out of land.

I had already recently communicated with owner Greg Coxon, who basically offered the same deal to me: “Our lowest price lots start at 25k.” and “Were [sic] offering no interest financing on short term loans,thus contradicting McMahon’s promise of “off-market deals” and “massive discounts like 50%.” Moreover, the views from these lots are jungle views, not lake views, which makes a difference at Lake Arenal, also known as the "Lake Tahoe of Costa Rica".

A closer look at the sales history of The Preserve might make a buyer cautious. Having been marketed for over 2 years now (as determined from the date of the Facebook page), only 22 out of 57 lots have been sold. The pace of sales has slowed in the last year, with only 6 sales last year and one lot unsold (probably a payment default). . Only a model home and a clubhouse have been built. Described as a gated community, the fencing around the gate can easily be stepped over on foot. The lots are not yet graded, and this subdivision is “eco-friendly”, the euphemism for having no public water or sewers. The sewage treatment plant has not yet been built, but there is well water. In other words, this subdivision is still in mostly raw form 2 years later, and the longer development is delayed, the harder it is to sell the remaining lots as prospective buyers become skeptical about the project’s viability. I’ve also never seen slowing lot sales speed up again, as confidence wanes when sales slow down.  Subdivisions are my valuation specialty.

The viability of The Preserve also needs to be judged in the context of its milieu. It is adjacent to another struggling community known as Turtle Cove Lake and Yacht Club. Turtle Cove has a marina, boat storage, and 5 custom homes built so far (two of which are for sale). After 5 years of marketing, only 22 out of 47 lots have been sold, and now their developer is holding a fire sale, with discounts of up to 34%. This spells trouble for the neighborhood. Financing is 20% down and 5% interest. The current price list and site plan can be found via this link:

When lots get discounted like this, the stage is set for negative lot absorption -- many lots will become “unsold” as buyers who already put 20% down realize that all of their equity is gone and they are now “underwater” on their purchase loans, owing more than the lot is worth. Buyers like this are often litigious, too, but lucky for the developers, they will get nowhere in Costa Rican courts, and neither would you. Vacant lots in distressed subdivisions are among the worst real estate investments that can be made, because the investor could lose his entire investment. Why does Pathfinder and RETA promote them so much? And don't get me started on "Pre-construction pricing" on unbuilt condos.

In summary, this shopworn property is not a suitable investment to be offering to subscribers, is more likely to lose money than make subscribers rich, and Real Estate Trend Alert is no more than a marketing gimmick that repackages paid advertisements into recommendations from a fake expert (a young man who came to IL from the industry) while collecting hefty fees from gullible subscribers.

PS: April 28, 2013, ten weeks later --

Pathfinder Alert has become increasingly desperate to market these shopworn Lake Arenal properties, with almost daily alerts.  Today's alert reads: 

"Once word gets out about this place, and it becomes trendy or hip, it could explode. There's no reason for its low property prices, other than the fact that nobody knows about it....

A lake-view lot for $17,500 - and it's open to offers."

What?  Could Ronan's insider deal at $25,000 ten weeks ago have actually been marked down 30% since then? And still be open to offers? 

PPS: February, 2014, one year later: The Preserve at Lake Arenal now has 36 lots for sale vs. 35 lots one year ago, indicating a net loss of one sale during the past year, and they are still offering "pre-construction" pricing! I seriously doubt if this project will get built.

Nevertheless, I just received this "Pathfinder Alert" from Margaret Summerfield:

"How to make $1.1 million in Costa Rica

Last week, Ronan McMahon told RETA members how they could have made massive profits from a land purchase in Arenal, Costa Rica. If you’re looking for access to “insider deals”, RETA could be your most valuable membership. Join Real Estate Trend Alert to be briefed the next time an opportunity like this crosses Ronan’s desk."

This phantom $1.1 million profit would have supposedly come from subdividing a large residential estate that sold at half its original listing price, but what hasn't been mentioned is that permits are needed to subdivide the land and Costa Rica's rules for approving subdivisions are just as onerous as California's; approvals take years, not months.  Then you have to find buyers for the lots, and buyers have been scarce at Arenal over the last 2 years.  If someone made $1.1 million on this deal, I would like to receive proof.

The style of communication of Pathfinder also presents some concerns. I'm talking about the frequent underlining, highlighting, bolding and exclamation marks!!  Where have I seen this before?  Just about every piece of spam I get, such as ads for miracle weight loss or genital enlargement pills. It's just so transparently sleazy.

11/20/17: I have published an updated article on Ronan McMahon:


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Suzanne and Guy said...

Hmmm, I too was thinking of a conference in Costa Rica put on by International Living. But guess what , after 3 tries , no one answers an office phone there and they always say they will call you back and only once have they and I was out. I think I will stay home.

Suzanne and Guy said...

Hmmm, I was also in this position with RETA and had to fight to get my money back. I was considering a trip with Int. Living to Costa Rica but after 3 tries to get an answer in office hours with no one answering the phone and one call back (I was unable to take the call that time) I think I will stay home from that one.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clear information on scams like the Real Estate Trend Alert

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info! Finger was on the trigger ready to pull. Luckily, I did a sight adjustment and read your review. Safety is back on and back in the holster!!! Thanks again Pard.

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Anonymous said...

Glad I did some research on Mr. McMahon, RETA and all his "inside deals". Thank you from making me look like a fool. Almost fell for his nonsense.

M. W.

Bob Itami said...

Wow what a timely critique. Thanks for the great post, I got the "promotional" email for RETA and it sounded too good to be true so I did a search for reviews and found yours. Its saved me money, time, and grief.
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I've lived in this country long enough now to learn that whenever you hear something that is too good to be true, it is exactly that.

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this - i was about to buy and did a quick google - you saved me a lot of time and money - the subscription ends up being the cheap part...

Don said...

I have been inundated with the great opportunities from Ronan. I laughed at the latest exclusive offer.. which is the same as the one you mentioned two years ago...
I am blocking their e:mails now. I thank you very much for the information.
Kind regards
a thankful west coast Canadian.

Anonymous said...

Very useful information. I have been receiving International Living mag for a couple of months now. I am so glad I read your post before getting into the get rich quick scheme being offered. Thank you.

Louise said...

Hello Vernon,
Thank you for caring to take the time to write about Ronan McMahon and Pathfinder's Real Estate Trend Alerts. I have been so interested in Costa Rica, but see that I need to really broaden my search tools and go outside IL Magazine! I was intrigued by their latest push for The Southern Zone in Costa Rica and a community called Pacific Lots. You write very well - and I love the details! Louise

Anonymous said...

Vernon, I appreciate the time it took to do this research and personal money you put out. I just got one of these REta emails and as I have a bit of powder laying around thought I would listen to the hypnotic spiel. I did wake up and did some research and found your post which I'm sure saved me a lot of heartache and $$$. Back to my dividend stocks!

Suzanne Tessier said...

very astute assessment. Thanks.
On another note, don't sign up for IL they promise the ability to unsubscribe - but when the time comes and you wish to do just that it is impossible! I had to cancel my credit card, and this was after trying every way to inform them.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, I've been considering RETA for years, but never the right time. Today I was close... glad I researched and found you.

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Poyel Nelson said...

Thank you for this interesting write up which nicely summarizes my own experience with IL and their affiliates til date.
I started to listen to the promo of the "Real Estate Trend Alert" today but when the guy told about his profiting from the strong Brazilian currency (What!?) I could only switch off. Very obviously this program was set up years ago regurgitating the same message ever since.

jowdjbrown said...

Funny. I guess another one of his exciting investments is going bad and Mr. Hicks is running short on cash again. The guy is a crook. This estate is probably owned by 12 different banks as collateral and they are calling their money

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Anonymous said...

Not surprised to see this at all. IL and really the parent company Agora which is a huge publishing house for all kinds of information regarding health, stock market, real estate, international living,etc. If you get on one list you're on many of them :) I have been a subscriber to the IL magazine which is half way decent at highlighting new places, but any of their premium services like this use fear based sensational marketing and they are very good at it. Some of it is decent, a lot of it garbage. Do your research as this author did and many readers have. Just about any service/company has reviews out there now. Do the search for SEC or FTC and Agora and you'll find some red flags.

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Linda Wyatt said...

Thank-you Vernon! I will check with you before jump! Thought it sounded to good to be true!

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Great article Vernon, bit about the unicorns is hilarious

Dr Jay said...

I appreciate writers who include proof of their statements or claims. That is why your post rates as highly credible. But I am wondering if you can offer suggestions as to where someone might find actual or real real estate deals for expats or wannabe expats?

I would think that Ronan's claim that developers will offer good deals for advance sales is not entirely false. It's also true that there are signs to look for that indicate a market or geographic area may be ready to heat up.

The Mexican Riviera south of Playa Del Carmen had little development until recently. Construction of better roads, plans for new airport and so on certainly play a role in development. So how does one find these opportunities? Ronon McMahon may be a scam, any suggestions on who may be legit?


Vernon Martin, MSRE, CFE said...

Dr. Jay,

My observation is that the greatest real estate profits are made by those with significant local knowledge and the ability to understand and seize an opportunity. The biggest losses sometimes come from answering classified ads or telemarketing phone calls.

I'm planning a visit to that very area next month and will report on it afterwards on this blog. Do not consider that as a substitute for doing your own research, though.

If you feel you must invest in another country I recommend "putting boots on the ground", meaning your boots and not Ronan's boots. Trust no "real estate guru." As for his constant advice to "buy in the path of progress", my observation is that the moment that phrase is applied to a particular area, asking prices skyrocket.

Another observation I've made is that the vacation residence market does not seem to have recovered yet from the Global Financial Crisis from ten years ago. I think that part of the reason is that one decade ago there were many people who saw vacation homes as appreciating investments, whereas that perception has diminished since then. Perhaps it may change, but in the mean time, wherever you see an oversupply of properties for sale, bide your time or bid very low.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an excellent article exposing Ronan for what he is. I was considering paying for the quarterly newsletter but after finding out that one of IL's other suggested newsletters was also a fraud (Laissez-Faire published by Agora) and decided to google the real estate trend Alert and found your blog. Thank God I did. I should have known the guy was a scam artist. As you said, the newsletter is full of nothing but hype. But he plays on people like me--people who are desperate for someone to trust and some honest information. I just want to buy some property abroad and I don't know where to turn. But thank you for stopping me from turning to Ronan.

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Anonymous said...

I, too, was about fork over $125 to check out Ronan's "deals". As I was listening to the convincing presentation I googled him and found this blog. Thank you for your advice and warnings! I've decided to cool my heels. I am ready to retire and am very interested in Playa del Carmen and Baja but I'll take the time to do my own research once I have time to put my own boots on the ground. Thanks again. I'm going to subscribe to your informative blog.

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